Let Them Sell Cake

Let Them Sell Cake

Alexis ChapmanWednesday,24 February 2016

If your local convenience store has a basket of apples and bananas and oranges on the counter and you’ve ever wondered why it’s there the answer might be the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2014 Bill changed the requirements for retailers to be able to accept SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps”). Under the 2014 Bill, in order to become a SNAP authorized retailer, a store had to stock at least seven varieties from each of the four staple food categories (yes the USDA is basically still using the four food groups for some reason). The previous requirement was three from each category. The 2014 Bill also made it so SNAP retailers had to stock perishable foods from at least three categories, instead of the previous two. These changes were designed to make sure that people using SNAP would have access to healthy food and also the ability to combat food deserts.

Now the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the agency of the USDA that administers SNAP, is proposing additional rule changes that would codify the 2014 Farm Bill changes and place additional, stricter requirements on retailers who accept SNAP. The goal of the new changes, according to the FNS, is “to better enforce the intent of the Act to permit low-income individuals to purchase more nutritious foods for home preparation and consumption”. These objectives and the intent of the 2014 changes are good goals; eating healthy should not be a luxury, and your location shouldn’t put you at a nutrition disadvantage. It feels like it makes sense that retailers should be stocking healthy food. But unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

The new changes will make it harder for retailers to accept SNAP and the 2014 stocking requirements mean that retailers are being forced to buy and stock items that consumers may or may not even want to purchase. SNAP benefits can be used to buy a variety of items and users are under no obligation to buy the things retailers have been forced to stock. SNAP can’t be used to buy hot foods or restaurant type meals intended to be eaten in the store, or alcohol, or things that aren’t food (tobacco products, cleaning items, pet foods), but beyond that there aren’t really any restrictions. A customer paying with SNAP can walk right past the weird government mandated fruit basket in the convenience store and buy some chips and soda instead, just as they could if they were paying with cash or credit. Certain people see this as problem and think that SNAP benefits should only be used to purchase healthy food. This idea has been around since at least 1977 and there is some logic behind support for restrictions. SNAP benefits are paid for by tax dollars and a lot of healthcare is now heavily subsidized by tax dollars too. The idea that someone can use their taxpayer-funded SNAP benefits to buy a bunch of soda and junk food, suffer the resulting health problems, and then use tax payer funded health care to get treatment can feel kind of wrong, especially if you’re a tax payer. But restricting SNAP benefits to only healthy foods is not that simple either.

In 2007 the FNS published a report on the “Implications of Restricting Food Stamp Benefits” which explains some of the reasons they don’t prohibit people from using SNAP to buy unhealthy food. The reasons are pretty predictable. For starters it’s hard to determine what exactly is healthy and unhealthy. The USDA recently shied away from even making dietary recommendations for individuals so it’s not surprising that they don’t trust themselves to actually regulate what SNAP users are allowed to buy. And the regulations they already have seem logical but may not make sense in terms of nutrition. For instance you can’t buy beer with SNAP, but you can buy soda, even though beer often contains B vitamins, niacin, phosphorus, protein, and fiber, whereas soda is usually just sugar calories with no vitamins or other nutritional value.

Additionally the report mentions that restrictions would increase the complexity, and by extension the cost of the program. The fact that healthy food can be more expensive than unhealthy food isn’t mentioned in the report but that could drive the program costs up even more. A 2013 study by Harvard scientists put the price of healthy food at $1.50 more per day, per person. That figure was reached using international data and is a couple years old, but if we err on the conservative side and presume $1 a day per person, then a family of four trying to eat healthy would add $28 dollars to their weekly food budget. That’s a little over $100 extra a month and $1,460 more per year. The amount of SNAP benefits a person can receive varies by state and income level, but in Texas the maximum benefits for a family four is $649 per month. So it’s likely that if SNAP were changed to only cover healthy food, then there would be a need to increase the benefit amounts to cover the cost difference for healthy food.

The USDA report also sites the fact that 70% of SNAP users don’t receive the full benefits and are expected to be spending their own income on food as well. If SNAP purchases were restricted there is obviously nothing to stop SNAP users from buying unhealthy food with their own money. It’s also worth noting that able-bodied adults without dependants (ABAWDs) are only allowed to receive SNAP benefits for 3 months out of every 3 years if they don’t meet certain work requirements, so any restrictions would only affect their diet for the limited amount of time they’re using SNAP. Also, ABAWDs only make up about a third of SNAP recipients; the other two thirds are children, seniors, and people with disabilities, so these are the majority of the people who would be impacted by any dietary restrictions.

These are all good reasons not to restrict what can be bought with SNAP and there are other reasons too. It’s highly paternalistic to limit what people can and can’t buy with their benefits, it doesn’t seem to align with the American values about personal choice, and it could even be seen as punitive to tell people that if they’re using SNAP they can’t enjoy certain “unhealthy” foods. On the other hand, it’s already pretty paternalistic to give someone who can’t afford food a card that they can only use to buy food, rather than just giving them money. Also, under a different program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the USDA does mandate that the benefits can only be used to purchase healthy foods. Each state has its own list of WIC-approved foods but they are all limited to things like milk, eggs, whole grain cereal, fresh fruits, beans, and bread. So SNAP users are free to buy ice cream and bacon but WIC users are not. So even though the FNS doesn’t want to dictate what SNAP users can buy, the agency is willing to dictate what stores have to sell in addition to restricting what WIC users can get.

Finally the USDA report says, “No evidence exists that food stamp participation contributes to poor diet quality or obesity.” That may be true but it’s also true that there is a growing divide in the quality of food being consumed by rich and poor Americans. The high price of healthy food and lack of accessibility in some areas is only part of the problem. For some people who do want to buy healthier food there are additional economic roadblocks. The lower a person’s income is, the more likely they are to live somewhere that doesn’t have a kitchen. If a person has SNAP and wants to use it to buy fresh vegetables but they don’t have a fridge to store them in or a stove to cook them on, it doesn’t really help that they can buy an apple at the corner store.

The fact is that unfortunately trying to mandate the supply of healthy food by retailers is not going to solve food insecurity or poor diet in this country. And neither is restricting what people can purchase with SNAP. Making sure that people have access to food seems like it should be one of the easiest social welfare programs to get support for and run, but even this is incredibly complicated. We’re all prone to knee jerk gut reactions to issues, whether it’s “Of course stores should have to sell vegetables!” or “Of course people on food stamps shouldn’t use them to buy candy!”. The 2014 Farm Bill and the FNS are trying to move in the right direction to address serious problems, but if we really want to make progress on food in this country we’re going to have to do a lot more than just force the gas station to sell fruit. We can start by letting go of some of those opinionated feelings and starting to look at actual data on what works to enable people to eat better.

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